Dr. Larry Perlman thinks of himself as a people person. It’s a point he returns to again and again when discussing his unusual career path, which saw the Foley & Lardner partner make a hard pivot from working as a physician to practicing the law as a labor and employment attorney.
“I like people,” Perlman said. “In my practice I deal with other attorneys, but I also spend a good amount of my time dealing with human resources professionals, dealing with the folks on the ground who are supervising others and getting their side of the story. If you did a pie chart of who I talk to … it runs the gamut of folks from all levels.
“And so I’m always speaking with people who don’t necessarily have the same degrees as me and don’t necessarily have the same viewpoint as me … and that’s a wonderful thing. It keeps things interesting.”
If interacting with people is one of Perlman’s guiding principles, curiosity is unquestionably his North Star.
“When I was in high school I had two major extracurricular activities,” he recalled of his time at Stuyvesant High School in New York City. Quipping that he wasn’t one for athletics, Perlman said he conducted biomedical research at New York University with the Science Talent Search program and participated in the debate team. ”I always had these two academic interests: one very science-oriented, one more liberal arts-oriented.”
His dual interests led him to enroll at the University of Michigan for a combined seven-year pre-med and medical school program.
“When I went and interviewed at Michigan, they said, ‘What we’re looking for is people who may not ordinarily go to medical school, people who have other interests who are more liberal arts-minded and folks who we think will make better doctors … because you take a broader view of the world,” he said. Noting his working-class background and the lack of doctors and lawyers in his family, Perlman jumped at the opportunity.
“The program doesn’t exist anymore, and I think that’s too bad,” he said. “But out of my class of 40-some-odd people, close to half of us who graduated don’t practice medicine as our primary career right now. They wanted folks who might not ordinarily go into medicine. That’s what you get, right?”
After graduating, Perlman rose to the rank of chief resident at Long Island Jewish Medical Center before moving to Detroit to work in private practice. His stint as a physician was defined by tension, with his love for patient-centric care pulling him in one direction as his inquisitive nature tugged him toward another.
“I love seeing patients; I love getting to know people and the trust that people would put into me in terms of allowing me to participate in serious and intimate decisions … that was really cool,” he said. “It was wonderful, and it was a privilege.”
However, Perlman didn’t feel his curiosity was being sufficiently fulfilled.
“On Sunday nights I did not look forward to going to work,” he said. “I had this gap where I said, ‘I like what I do, I go to work and I talk to people, and I banter with patients and help them with their maladies, but … I’m not getting what I need intellectually.’ I started thinking ‘I don’t know if this is what I want to be doing for the next 30, 40, 50 years.’ ”
Perlman credits his pediatrician-wife Varisa with helping him cut through the malaise and figure out what he wanted to do with his career. She told him, “ Look, I know you … If you had not been on the combined program, you would have applied to law school, wouldn’t you have?”
With his wife’s blessing and support, Perlman returned to the University of Michigan, this time as a law student. He characterized the experience as “completely different from the first time around.”
“What you realize is school is a completely selfish endeavor,” he said. “I was practicing medicine. If I screwed up … someone could die. If you go the other way from law to medicine, if you screw up, someone could lose a lot of money or lose their freedom. In school if you screw up, that bad grade is yours and yours alone. When you realize that, you look at school in a whole different light.”
With his law degree in hand, it didn’t take long for Perlman to feel at home in his new profession.
“What spoke to me from day one was the concept of resolving disputes in a format where human beings make the rules,” he said. “When you’re litigating a case, what your job ends up being is within that framework we created — and I think it’s a great thing we created — convincing others that a client’s actions fit within that framework. And it’s just such a cool challenge to me.”
Despite the difference in venues, Perlman maintains his day-to-day problem-solving in the labor and employment field is not all that different from what he did as a doctor. Reflecting on a recent private proceeding, he drew a direct line between his current success and his bygone medical career.
“My wife asked how it went, and I said I think I did really well,” Perlman said. ”My wife said, ‘You know why that is, right? You’ve prepared people to have open-heart surgery; you’ve prepared people to have discussions about end of life and what to do … of course you have a skill in preparing people for testifying.’ ”
For a moment, Perlman paused. “ I thought that was really cool because … I think she’s right,” he laughed.
Dr. Larry Perlman
Spouse: Varisa Perlman
Children: Isabel and Andre
Education: University of Michigan, J.D., 2007, M.D., 1998, B.S., 1995
Experience: Partner/senior counsel, Foley & Lardner, 2007–present; Physician, Detroit, 2004-2007; Chief resident, Long Island Jewish Medical Center, 2004; Resident, Long Island Jewish Medical Center, 2002-2004